PLAYING LIKE GIRLS

This Olympics image shows women athletes playing just as hard in a hijab as in a bikini

Obsession
Rio 2016
Obsession
Rio 2016

The picture below, taken during the women’s beach volleyball preliminary round match between Egypt and Germany on Aug. 7, offers a perfect visualization of the ideal of “blending sport with culture and education” at the core of the Olympic spirit: Two female athletes, Doaa Elghobashy of Egypt and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany, jump high after the ball. The women’s strong, lean bodies in motion mirror each other across the net. Elghobashy, on the left, is wearing a full body suit and a hijab. Walkenhorst, right, is in a bikini.

Beach Volleyball - Women's Preliminary
Doaa Elghobashy of Egypt and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany compete. (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

We can’t know what was in the minds of the two athletes (we have reached out to both to ask, but have not immediately heard back). Of course, the internet was quick to theorize that this is a portrait of some kind of clash of civilizations, an expression of a “massive cultural divide” between the two women and their teams.

But on its face, the image seems less illustrative of a massive divide than of a strong commonality. For different reasons, both hijab and a bikini tend to provoke problematic stereotypes of women—an assumption of religious imposition on one side, and one of willing sexual objectification on the other. In this picture, however, these very misconceptions make the garments strong symbols of empowerment.

Volleyball has long been associated with skimpy bikinis—less than six inches wide used to be the required uniform for Olympic players. The mandatory bikini policy was adopted, as the Australian Sports Commission noted in a fact sheet on “sexploitation” in sports, to “intentionally to focus attention on the athletes’ bodies rather than for any technological, practical or performance-enhancing reasons,” and many athletes had to wear them despite not being thrilled about it.

Then, in 2012, the International Volleyball Association decided to allow less revealing uniforms, explaining the change as a step toward inclusion—an acknowledgement that the bikini does not fit the religious and cultural norms of many of the countries that take part in international competitions.

This change essentially freed athletes to wear what they were comfortable with. For Walkenhorst, that’s still a bikini.

For Elghobashy, as for many Muslim women, it means wearing a hijab. “I have worn the hijab for 10 years,” Doaa Elghobashy told the Associated Press, “it doesn’t keep me away from the things I love to do, and beach volleyball is one of them.”

And so, no: There is no clash of cultures here. Just two women athletes who are among the world’s best at their jobs, and are free to do those jobs wearing whatever they please—in one of the rare environments that respects both their cultures.

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